How many people in the world, if asked, would nominate celery as one of their favourite vegetables?
Everyone knows that it’s useful. It’s an essential part of the classic French mirepoix, along with carrots and onions, and it also forms an important part of Cajun and Creole cooking. But in these, as with many celery-related things, you find it’s part of the base. Important though that is, celery should be appreciated as a star vegetable in its own right, crunchy, refreshing with a clean almost herbal flavour that has just enough bitterness to give it edge and personality.
Despite its long history as a cultivated plant, a lot of celery’s early uses were more symbolic or medicinal. In fact, it wasn’t until the 19th century that you see it being used more as a vegetable. In ancient Greece, the leaves were used to make garlands for the dead. Medicinally it has been attributed various properties, including being an aphrodisiac and stopping flatulence. To this day it’s used in Chinese herbal and Indian ayurvedic medicine; it’s thought to be cooling and calming and can be used as a digestive and a diuretic.
Celery, which is available all year round but is at its best in winter and early spring, is a member of the apiaceae family that includes parsley, dill, carrot, fennel, parsnip and caraway. Looking at the leaves of carrots and parsley, it’s very easy to see the family resemblance.
Celery traces its roots to a wild variety called smallage, a leafy plant with thin hollow stalks and a strong excessively bitter flavour that has gradually been tamed by cultivation. Although no longer as strong, some bitterness is still inherent in modern varieties. Celery needs lots of water when growing, otherwise the stalks can be stringy and fibrous and the leaves very bitter. Another way to prevent excessive bitterness in your celery is through a process called blanching. This involves excluding air and light while the plant grows to keep the edible part pale, yielding a less bitter, more tender vegetable. Personally, I love bitterness in my cooking; it’s a wonderful flavour to balance other things. It also provides relief to the palate in things like pickles.
Roots, leaves, stalks, seeds
There is one main type of celery that is found pretty much everywhere, that long bunch of stalks held together at the bottom. Chinese celery is also common, with smaller thin stalks that are tender and not stringy at all. Rarley used raw and prized as much for the leaves as the stalks, it’s used in Chinese cooking in stir-fries and soups. It tends to have a sweet, delicate, fresh flavour that pairs delightfully with pungent ginger and salty fermented black beans.
And then there’s celeriac, also known as knob or root celery. It is a different variety of the same plant, one that has been cultivated to produce this bulbous, large, ungainly looking root vegetable with stalks and leaves that have the appearance of celery but are coarser and darker and can’t be eaten raw. Blanch and dry the leaves though and they can be ground with salt to produce a vibrant celery seasoning. The root itself is a particularly fine vegetable, with an earthy mellow version of the flavour of celery. When used raw such as in a remuolade, a very tasty classic French condiment often paired with meat, it has an almost nutty flavour. Cook it and you will coax out the natural sweetness of this vegetable that has an almost potato-like texture.
Celery seeds are commonly used as a spice. Found in the American Old Bay Seasoning and used to make a salt for a Bloody Mary, they are the one celery ingredient I find too bitter.
Silky textures and crunchy sounds
I have always loved celeriac, but celery stalks were a different story, a vegetable I never really liked until one night at home cooking a dish of stir-fried mussels I added a little Chinese celery I had growing in my garden – strange considering my ambivalence to it – and was converted.
Peeled and briefly blanched celery can add a delicate crunch to a dish. The hearts can be braised giving a subtle soft earthy flavour and the pale inner leaves are perfect in a salad and add a freshness when thrown in at the last minute to a rich braise or even a pasta dish.
Cook the recipes
Photography by Sharyn Cairns. Styling by Lee Blaylock. Food preparation by Tiffany Page. Creative concept by Lou Fay
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